Set 'Em Wild, Set 'Em Free CD - Dead Oceans

The past two years have been a time of change for Akron/Family. Following the release of 2007's Love is Simple, Family member and lead vocalist Ryan Vanderhoof departed for more spiritual climes, leaving the quartet a trio. A change of label ensued...

Akron/Family emerged half a decade ago, more or less at the height of the whole freak-folk thing, and their excellent self-titled debut disc had as much psych-folk Wyrd-ness as one might hope for, but also on hand was an acrobatic, hypomanic inventiveness that set this NYC band apart from the crowd. And the stew of those creative juices has served them well as they have subsequently somewhat distanced themselves from folk forms while keeping their musical freedom intact. On one level, Set 'Em Wild, Set 'Em Free is more of the same psychedelic abandon - punctuated by sometimes disorienting shifts in time signature and left field emergent atonal free-jazz onanism - that the group do so well, but audibly they are evolving here. Somewhat new is the just palpable imprint of avant indie-rock that whispers Broken Social Scene or Arcade Fire. The disc overall speaks a bit more of rockism than past efforts, dipping, questionably, at one point ("MBF") into prog-metal jamming. They've always had an unfortunate weakness for the shambling jam, especially in a live setting, but (I've been told) there are actually people who like that sort of thing.

Opener "Everyone is Guilty" establishes a funky Afrobeat rhythm bed, then incorporates the usual harmonic chanting before bleeding into a classic-rock anthem hung with muscular guitar posturing. The title song ("Set 'Em Free, Pt. 1") is a forthright and sweet breath of folk-rock, polished by steel guitars, and it comes with a suitably bucolic YouTube video. One waits for what Akron/Family may do with this, to what dark corner they may usher the beauty of the song, but - surprise! - no surprise is forthcoming. "Sun Will Shine" imagines early-period Sparklehorse reeling in the drunken revelry of a dancehall at midnight on New Year's Eve. Oddly enough, that's a good thing.

You get the picture. If it were possible to judge Set 'Em Wild, Set 'Em Free out of the context of the band's other three albums, this record would impress me as the product of a group with strange but wonderful ideas and burgeoning prospects. In context, it feels to be a fine, if slightly paler ware than the first and third albums. Still, no more than a handful of bands can engender the type of real excitement in music of which this Family are capable.

By Michael Meade




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